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Time and Tools

By micahsimmons - Posted on 13 February 2012

With the frames, stem, and transom completed, I started working on the bottom of the boat, and found several jobs that my showood shavingsp is just too small for.  


I needed three twelve foot cypress one by tens.  The lumber yard was out of twelve footers, so they gave me fourteens.  I got them into the shop without sacrificing any light bulbs or windows, and laid them out side by side on saw horses.


After I cleared some space and moved the table saw, I had room to fit them over the jointer, but I made several passes and realized there was no way I could handle boards that long by myself.  Even with my girlfriend Sally helping, I couldn't keep the boards flat against the fence for the whole fourteen feet. 


I inherited most of my wood working tools from my Grandfather.  He and my Grandmother lived in western Virginia on a small farm that was in the family for five generations, and nobody that lived there in all that time ever threw anything away.  Granddad was a partner in a cabinet shop, and after he sold out to his partner, worked there until he retired.  In retirement he built and repaired furniture in a small shop that was part of the dairy barn when he still farmed. 

I occasionally read a woodworking magazine that every month features an article about a reader's shop.  The one thing they all have in common is cleanliness and order, with labelled cabinets, tools in complete and matching sets, and work benches you would happily have surgery on.  One month the editors featured a shop that looked like a working shop, and there was an impressive storm of outraged letters to the editor, passionately denouncing the messy shop owner on the grounds of safety, health, efficiency, morality, decency, humanity, and patriotism. Nobody actually called him a verminous pervert, but they came pretty close.  Granddad's shop wouldn't have sparked quite that level of outrage among the readers of American Woodworker, but it would have certainly pursed some lips and shaken some heads.   He charged seven dollars an hour and said he charged so little because he worked so slowly, yet at his funeral, the church was full and it seemed like everybody there had something he either built or repaired.  He did beautiful work, and with a small space and limited resources, he always found a way to make do.   I think of him often as I use generations old hand tools in my tiny, cluttered shop.

tools together


To joint the boards for the bottom, I turned each board up on edge and clamped it in place with a pipe clamp on the boards on either side of it.  I used a joiner plane to straighten the edge of each board, laying them back down in order to check the joint.  The result wasn't perfect, but was close enough to pull the glue joints together with pipe clamps, and end up with a fairly flat surface.  I used a silicone exterior caulk in the joints, and when I was pulling them together, the boards were impossible to keep even with each other over their entire length, so I screwed temporary oak cleats every three feet to keep the floor flat. 

bottom and frame

boat bottom

After the caulk had some time to cure, I squared one end of the   boards, and laid out the bottom with a chalk line and fairing batten.  I love laying out curved lines with a batten. Any point along the line that isn't correct shows up as soon as you spring the batten, and can be brought in line with a little erasing.  As I move along to each new part of this project, I realize weekly that I have very little idea what I'm doing, and being able to see that a line and shape will work before I start cutting is a comfort. 


After the bottom was laid out, I began to cut it out with a handsaw.  In Gardner's The Dory Book, he shows a dory bottom being cut out with a handsaw, while the builder checks the bevel with a bevel square.  Seemed simple enough.  Using my great grandfather Charlie's saw, I took the bottom bevel at the transom and began to cut. 

boat bottom

I could see right away that if I was going to go on like that, I'd better clear my calendar for the next couple of months, so I opened one of my blacksmithing books and read the chapter on sharpening hand saws.  When I was a kid, my dad had two backsaws that he used for trim and joinery, and when they weren't in use, he kept their blades wrapped in cardboard, and he threatened to murder me if I played with and dulled them.  That seemed a little crazy at the time, but after setting and filing two saws, I kind of understand.  Setting the teeth means bending every other tooth in opposing directions with a small crimping tool, and is about forty minutes of eye-crossing concentration.  The actual filing takes almost another hour.  When I was done, the saw cut quickly and with relatively little effort.  Tickled pink, I went back to the boat bottom, ready to make things happen, and found out that I couldn't follow the curve of the boat with that saw.  I called Dad, borrowed his jigsaw, and cut the bottom out, leaving enough stock to trim away to fit the final bevel. 


Since I screwed cleats to the planed side of the boards and laid the lines out on the rough side, the rough side is now the floor of the boat.  On my shelf of old planes, there's a number of wooden bottomed smoothing planes that Dad gave me.  wood plane


I started to plane the bottom with one, and it cut deeply on one side, barely taking anything on the other.  I checked the iron with a square and found out that it had been ground badly out of square, and fit too tightly in the body of the plane to adjust.  I spent another hour regrinding the blade, and in the process, I burned it blue, and so had to re-harden it. 


Tool steel can be hardened by heating it red hot and then quenching it in a mixture of used motor oil and diesel fuel.  Actually, most of my blacksmithing books say that the recommended quenching medium is lamb's fat.  I really don't like the smell of burning motor oil, and I don't want to be the kind of person who goes out searching for lamb's fat, (which I'm almost positive would land you on some sort of neighborhood watch list), so I use bacon grease.  One minute the blacksmith shop smells like burning coke and hot steel, and then it smells like smoky bacony heaven.  After hardening, you polish the soot and grease off of the blade, and then heat it slowly until the cutting edge is the color of straw, then plunge it into water, and there you go; your plane blade is hard enough to hold an edge, but not so hard that it will chip or shatter.  The books all say, "...temper to a light straw," like there's nothing to it, but I've found it to be a difficult question of timing that I often have to repeat several times to get it right.  I don't mind; I love the smell of bacon.


Mom and Dad came over to check out my progress, and I asked Dad plane in clampwhere those joiner and smoothing planes came from.  In 1972, a year before I was born, my parents were living in Hagerstown, Indiana, where Dad was the pastor of a small rural Church of the Brethren.  After Hurricane Agnes, Dad and some other volunteers from the church went to northeastern Pennsylvania to help with flood cleanup in the Wyoming Valley in Luzerne County. Dad and a friend were cleaning out a basement in Forty Fort that belonged to an eighty year old man who had his grandfather's toolbox in his basement when it flooded.  He told Dad and his friend to throw the toolbox away.  They told him the tools were valuable and could be restored, but the man didn't want them and so gave them to Dad and his friend. 



Those planes are at least one hundred fifty years old, and are beautiful.  I thought of them as neat decorations in a shop, but after I  ground, hardened, sharpened and honed the smoother, and waxed the sole with beeswax, it made clean cuts with little effort and no chatter.  I planed the whole floor of the boat with it, and am very pleased with the result, especially given that to put those boards through my planer I would have had to move my workbench, open the window and back door, and then go outside to feed the boards through. 

I wouldn't care to give up my power tools altogether.  I have, however, been deeply enjoying my hand saws and planes.  That a tool can survive a century and a half and the Agnes flood, making its way from New York to Pennsylvania, to Indiana and back to PA, and still be used is a testament to preservation and conservation, and shows that being a pack rat isn't all bad.  I'm glad those tools weren't discarded or turned into rustic period decor, and I'm glad that I have the chance to learn about them and use them.


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